Until the 1960s, the history of the vibraphone in jazz, where it has been chiefly used, could be summarized in terms of a mere handful of players: Lionel Hampton, who introduced it to the idiom in the 1930s, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson and several others.

Vibraphonist Lennie Cuje' might well be playing a horn were it not for a mishap.

With Dizzy Gillespie as his model, Cuje' was a trumpet player until someone bumped against his horn and broke his front teeth at a Washington-Lee High School dance in 1952. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he studied composition at East Tennessee State University and began teaching himself the vibraphone. With a music degree in hand, Cuje' returned to the Washington area.

He played vibes in many a D.C. jazz club during the early '60s, including the Charles Hotel and the Bowery, in combos that boasted saxophonist Buck Hill and drummer Billy Hart. From 1963 to 1971, Cuje' relocated to New York, where his associations were with the likes of pianist Paul Bley and guitarist Larry Coryell.

But he returned to Washington, and currently works with the Swing Era band Hot Jazz and the Steve Novosel-Lennie Cuje' quartet, which will perform at the One Step Down tonight through Sunday.

What has struck the Washington jazz audience about the less-than-six-month-old Novosel-Cuje' foursome (with Bob Butta on piano and Phil Cunneff on drums) is that it is perhaps the tightest ensemble effort and hardest swinging modern group to establish itself in the area in recent memory.

Cuje' explains, "All four of us have been through New York, and we have that New York intensity and energy, that love for biting into the music."

Citing Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and McCoy Tyner as some of the composers his group favors, Cuje' says, "We're mainly dedicated to keeping the classics of this American music alive and giving Washington a chance to hear some of that presented in a professional manner -- none of this pickup stuff and 'What're we gonna play next?' "

Cuje''s introduction to this American music came in a convent in Europe during World War II. "Yeah, I was hiding there, to sit out the rest of the war," he says.

The Frankfurt-born Cuje', whose father conducted a Frankfurt symphony before the war, was boarding at a music school in October 1944. "We were bombed out and evacuated down to the Danube near Ulm when the French First Army came through, and we were pulled in at the very last minute by the retreating German Army and trained. Some of the other boys began Panzer Faust, an antitank thing. I became a machine gunner." Cuje' was 12 and his assistant, the "ammo feeder," was 10, he says.

"We were taken prisoner by French Moroccans in April," Cuje' continues, "but we escaped from prison camp after a couple of days. The little boy stuck with me and we jumped in the Danube and then hid in this convent for two months until the war came to a close. I heard this very strange music there over the American Forces Network and the nuns told me, 'That comes from Africa.' I'd never heard any jazz."

It was not until he left the convent in search of his family in the American sector in Frankfurt that he learned what kind of music he had been listening to in the convent. He recalls to this day the very first selections he heard, "Flying Home" and "Airmail Special" by Lionel Hampton's band.

It wasn't long before the teen-aged Cuje', who had been conservatory-trained in trumpet and piano since age 7, immersed himself in jazz. "That's what made me come over here," says Cuje' of his immigration in 1950. "I heard that music and knew I had to go to the States.